Thursday, December 09, 2010

The utter balls people write about Oxbridge

I start by apologizing for the profanity, but when I hear people spouting questions like "What is it about the famed Oxbridge interview system that counts against students who didn't attend a top public school?" it makes me very angry. The implication in the article is that there's a race bias (or is it a school bias, or a north/south divide bias... I actually lost track of the number of biases the article is claiming).

The answer to the question is rather simple (as long as the question is reframed as "What is it about the famed Oxbridge interview system that counts against some people?"). The Oxford interview process is bloody hard. So hard that 25 years on I use questions asked of me at 17 years old to screen candidates for programming jobs. The interview process is not designed to discriminate against people who didn't go to a top public school, it's meant to discriminate against people who aren't up to studying there.

I attended Oxford at the same time as David Cameron and his chums (Michael Gove was in the room next to me for a year). There certainly were lots of people from public schools (perhaps they did get in because their Dad went to Oxford, or perhaps it was because of the level of education they received), but there were also lots of people like me who didn't, in the stereotype, go to Eton.

I went to Oxford from a large comprehensive school. I sat that grueling entrance exam in mathematics, I was invited for interview and stayed days in Oxford being interviewed over and again. I didn't get special tuition to make it into Oxford, I'm not a public school boy and no one in my family has an Oxford connection. Neither of my parents have degrees.

I was asked extremely searching questions about mathematics and computer science that were well outside any A level curriculum and the purpose was to see how I would think. One interviewer pointedly asked me why I hadn't done a particular question on the entrance exam and then made me answer it at a blackboard in front of him. Another made me stand in front of a blackboard and solve a problem in computer science.

While I was at Oxford I was asked to go into comprehensive schools to encourage people to apply. Many people write themselves off and don't even try. This is a problem and the linked article doesn't help the situation by portraying Oxford as racist.

The author should have asked himself why so few black students were applying to Oxford and so few were getting top A level grades. You'd think he might have done that given that he was Minister for Higher Education under the previous government. But it's a lot easier to point the finger at some imagined evil institution than ask the hard questions about the state of education in British schools.

And he really shows his deep knowledge of the subject when he states: "Cambridge doesn't employ a single black academic." Sorry, Dr Okeoghene Odudu, Dr Justice Tankebe (inter alia) I guess you don't count for some reason.

It is tragic that such a small number of black students are getting top grades, but whacking Oxford and Cambridge without attacking the root cause is almost criminal. It's betraying the people the author wishes to be believed to be trying to help.

He also states: "You will not find these figures on the Oxford or Cambridge websites. ". Wanna bet? How about Oxford's Undergraduate Admissions Statistics 2009 entry and let's look at Ethnic Origin.

And we'll just compare "Whites" to "Black African, Caribbean and Other". So 8,378 white applicants; 221 black. Swap to acceptances we have 2,316 white acceptances; 27 black. So 28% of white applicants got in and 12% of black. Evidence of race bias or something else?

To quote the site: "Oxford’s three most oversubscribed large (over 70 places) courses (Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics) account for 44% of all Black applicants – compared to just 17% of all white applicants." and "Subject breakdown: 28.8% of all Black applicants for 2009 entry applied for Medicine, compared to just 7% of all white applicants. 10.4% of all Black applicants for 2009 entry applied for Economics & Management, compared to just 3.6% of all white applicants."

So you've got a small number of candidates applying into the most oversubscribed subject areas. 44% of black applicants are applying for courses with acceptance rates of 7.9%, 12.1% and 19%.

Put those figures together and assume no bias and for the 44% you've got a 12 black students who get admitted out of 97 who apply to those subjects. That's a success rate of 12%. That gibes with the figure given above: and that's assuming that the acceptance rate for those three subjects has no bias at all.

What about the other 56%? That's 123 students of which 27 - 12 got accepted. So that's also 12%. The problem with interpreting that is those 15 students are a tiny portion of the pool of 11,896 students who applied. And without knowing what subjects they applied for it's hard to dig into them.

But it is possible to work backwards. Suppose that 28% of those 123 black students were accepted (the average rate for whites) then there'd be 34 accepted. So the total would be 34 + 12 out of 221 or 20.8%. Comparing that with the overall 12% rate it's clear that the acceptance rate for black students is lower than white students in the non-oversubscribed subjects. But knowing why is hard.

If they are all applying for earth sciences (acceptance rate 44.9%) then there's a problem, if they are applying for law (acceptance rate 17.7%) then a different picture emerges. And if it's Fine Art (acceptance rate 12.9%) they are close to spot on. The only way to the bottom of that puzzle is a breakdown by subject and ethnic origin. But with such a tiny group of applicants even a change of acceptance of a single student could cause wild swings in percentage acceptance rates.

The other laughable misuse of statistics in the article come in the form of cherry-picking. "Merton College, Oxford, has not admitted a single black student for five years." Hardly surprising. If 2009 isn't anything to go by just 27 black students were admitted to the entire university. There are 38 colleges in Oxford. It's not possible to divide 27 by 38 evenly and no surprise that a specific college would have no black student for a number of years.

The bottom line is that getting into Oxbridge is hard and that the number of black students applying is tiny. Imagine for a moment that black students got in at the same rate as white students. There would still only be 62 black students at the university. Let's attack the real problem and raise up the education level of black students.

Update: Follow up post looking into the Merton Problem.

Update: I emailed Oxford asking if they'd release the breakdown by ethnic origin and subject so that per-subject bias can be examined in the non-over subscribed subjects. Will blog if I get a result.

Update: I saw a comment on Twitter that said that it was "delusional of the author [i.e. me] to doggedly say there is no way oxbridge has any institutional issues at all." Clearly, I haven't said that Oxford has no institutional issues (in fact, it would be utterly amazing if it didn't), and in a comment I stated: "If anyone would like to point me to statistically significant data that shows bias I'd be happy to write about it." I don't see it from the data, but if it's there it should be examined.

27 comments:

Tom said...

There may well be some black academics at Cambridge. But, for whatever reason, they weren't mentioned by the university in their response to David Lammy's FOI request. So you can't really blame him for that.

And while the university publishes overall admissions statistics by ethnic origin, it doesn't do so by college. So no, you won't find a lot of the statistics he was referring to on the Oxford website.

Of course it's important to look at the statistics in depth. But what makes me very angry is people coming at the statistics with an automatic assumption that everything is fine with their admissions system, and that any bias found in the figures - even one that remains after taking into account Oxford's own defence - must be down to statistical oddities around small numbers, and the exact breakdown of courses.

Yes, there are problems further down the system. But Oxford and Cambridge do still have real access problems. I don't think that can be justifed as merely 'discriminating against people who aren't up to studying there' - particularly as there's evidence that students from comprehensive schools do better than students from public schools, relative to their previous grades, once they get in (http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/01411920903165611).

[Disclosure: I, a white male, likewise went to Oxbridge from a large comprehensive school - in fact to the one college which has a higher acceptance rate for black applicants than white applicants.]

John Graham-Cumming said...

Tom,

I don't have an automatic belief that there's no bias (actually, I'd be inclined to believe that there is bias), but the data as presented doesn't support the bias hypothesis.

Admittedly, there is missing data about the non-oversubscribed subjects. I've asked Oxford to release it. If they do, I'll blog about the conclusions.

Also, if anyone would like to point me to statistically significant data that shows bias I'd be happy to write about it.

I did a follow up post on the per-college data that the university released on FoI requests.

John.

draxar said...

Beyond getting higher results, I'd imagine that one of the biggest advantages that public school applicants have is that their schools can and will take them through the Oxbridge application process, give them one to one or few to one discussions about what they're likely to go up against.

State will sometimes do it, but I'd hazard a guess that they're probably a lot less good at doing so.

John Graham-Cumming said...

I'd imagine that public schools do a lot to help their students get into Oxbridge.

For my part I was actually told by my comprehensive not to even bother applying!

andygodfrey said...

Agreed that there are problems with Lammy's analysis. Which is a shame, because it makes it very easy for Oxbridge to demolish a few straw men rather than facing up to some of the genuine problems.

The following questions are the ones that really need to be answered:

1) What is Oxford doing to address the oversubscription/undersubscription to certain courses?

2) If the effect of requiring AAA is that fewer people from certain backgrounds will get into Oxford, isn't this requirement itself a barrier to access?

3) Even if best efforts aren't going to massively boost numbers from underrepresented backgrounds, what are Oxford and Oxford students doing to ensure that such people are not excluded once they get into Oxford (a major problem that Lammy doesn't even touch on)?

4) What about PPHs? These are absent from official statistics, which only apply to 31 colleges not 38.

5) Statistics-wise, although there is a chance that some colleges would end up with no black students, is it not still possible that there are statistically significant differences between admissions rates at different colleges (though I guess to know that, you would need to know the breakdown of students by ethnicity, college choice AND subject choice - and possibly also grades)

[Disclosure: white Merton alumnus from a state school]

Cooper42 said...

You're missing the point.

Entrance exams to Oxford are bloody hard. People do better with private tuition. I'm guessing, you, as a fellow comp. kid are either a) incredibly bright or b) had private tuition focused on the Oxford exams. I'm happy to accept you may well be incredibly bright, and well done, sincerely, for getting into Oxford.

The thing is, someone from a background where there IS the cash for private tuition WILL do better in the entrance exams EVEN if they are not as bright as those who get through without the tuition.

Oxford do not, as far as I am aware, subsidise extra-curricular tuition for comprehensive schooled students.

The Oxford entrance exams therefore selects, to an extent, for economic background.

Your 'underlying reasons' are, therefore, not simply 'cos they ain't bright enough'. It is a 'bit more complicated than that'

In a system where paid-for tuition gives an advantage (i.e: Oxford admissions) there is an inherent bias towards students from more well off backgrounds.

It is no secret that students from ethnic minorities in this country tend to have less well-off backgrounds.

John Graham-Cumming said...

I didn't have private tuition for the exams, but setting me aside I think your point is entirely valid.

It's pretty obvious that children from rich backgrounds are more likely to get in because they'll go to private schools and get special tuition.

This would also help explain why so few black students are even applying to Oxbridge. There just aren't many at the required standard. That's what I believe needs to be addressed.

Clearly, that doesn't absolve Oxbridge from trying to attract all students of any background to Oxford and they should be encouraged to do it.

John Graham-Cumming said...

Andy,

Yes, it's possible for there to be statistically significant differences in acceptance rates at Oxford colleges and I did a follow up post that shows that that doesn't appear to be the case based on a chi square test.

John.

Paulo Veronese said...

I very much appreciated your response to Lammy's article especially pointing out the fact there were indeed black lectures at Cambridge, I must admit I was troubled by Lammy’s assertion. Tom’s comments on Cambridge’s FoI response go some way to excusing Lammy.

I agree with some of your rational and could argue with others however I feel a statistics based argument misses the point. Oxbridge needs to be seen to making the effort , a visible , measurable one to show that they are working with all levels of society and not just the elite. Oxbridge needs to be seen to be trying to be inspirational, inclusive with opportunity for all, rather than an elitist, mono-culture with Bullingdon ethics.

[Disclosure: I am a black male, passed the 11plus to an experimental secondary school with a grammar stream went on to do a degree in Physic at a Russell University]

Paulo Veronese said...

I very much appreciated your response to Lammy's article especially pointing out the fact there were indeed black lectures at Cambridge, I must admit I was troubled by Lammy’s assertion. Tom’s comments on Cambridge’s FoI response go some way to excusing Lammy.

I agree with some of your rational and could argue with others however I feel a statistics based argument misses the point. Oxbridge needs to be seen to making the effort , a visible , measurable one to show that they are working with all levels of society and not just the elite.

Just as long as Oxbridge takes money from the public purse it needs to be seen to be trying to be inspirational, inclusive with opportunity for all, rather than an elitist, mono-culture with Bullingdon ethics.

[Disclosure: I am a black male, passed the 11plus to an experimental secondary school with a grammar stream went on to do a degree in Physic at a Russell University]

teknoddy said...

Isn't there a tautology afoot? You say you use the university interview questions because they are hard, but you must think that or you wouldn't use them. All you seem to be saying is that they are hard because you say so.

I don't doubt you for a moment. I'm sure they are far too difficult, but you haven't provided a logical argument for that.

John Graham-Cumming said...

Paulo,

Very much agree on the outreach part. That's why I did it when I was at Oxford, and I know that when I was thinking of applying the Bullingdon-style bullshit was very off-putting.

That's partly why I took such exception to David Lammy's piece. By incorrectly making the claims he made he makes the situation worse. It reinforces an idea that the statistics don't support.

John.

Nick Barnes said...

Private schools are better (I should bloody hope so, the staffing levels they have and the money they charge), and are therefore more likely to get candidates in. They also have an expectation that their bright students will apply, and they prep those students specifically for Oxbridge entrance.

At Cambridge it was (Clare '86), and remains (a friend is Kings '10), quite noticeable that privately-educated kids arrive better prepared, and with better understanding and higher expectations of their university education, and also a sense not of entitlement exactly (although many do) but of being in the right place: state-sector kids tend to be considerably more daunted by the environment and to have a sense that they might not really belong.

My comprehensive got 3 into Oxbridge in my year, out of about 400, and that was their best record in living memory. No private school with a record that 'bad' could sell a single place.

Ravish said...

I think they are loosing the point. Investment is needed in primary and secondary schools to build them up to be able to compete for higher education places. Otherwise you are just engineering who gets in by positive discrimination. That has never worked.

Ian said...

The original article, and many of the comments posted to it and this blog post, accuse Oxbridge of being elitist. They are. That is the point of them- they are among the best universities in the world
http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2010/results
There is only a problem if they are elitist on the grounds of anything other than academic ability, but as John demonstrates, most attempts to 'prove' that this is the case can only be done by cherry-picking and confusing statistics that do not stand up to proper analysis. The problem is in the secondary school system, and arguably the Oxbridge interview system is fairer in that a good academic will be able to see beyond exam results and determine candidate's suitability.

I'm a product of the comprehensive system, I applied to Cambridge, was interviewed and I failed to get in. I don't hold a grudge against Cambridge for this or feel that I was discriminated against. I went to a Russell group university and probably did better there than if I had gone to Cambridge. Incidentally, this university had more than its fair share of white, middle-class southern students, but no-one ever seems to study admissions across the whole Russell group.

Chris Paul said...

As it goes my eldest - white, state schools, no coaching at school, no tutors, straights As, wonderful - was being interviewed in Oxford when this fairly silly story broke.

Their sixth form college does offer some super G & T support towards Oxbridge entrance but it is IMO fairly weak.

It seems to me that Colleges with their thinking caps on will often even usually be able to tell in the first minute of the first interview or exercise who has been coached and tutored and who has not. They will then surely try to make decisions on potential.

I don't know what the ratio of invited for interviews to applicants is. But these days I believe students apply to just one college and then there is a possibility of interviewing at others - at the applied for college's discretion it seems.

That introduces an element of chance for those who don't have insider knowledge or contacts. Which colleges and indeed which fellows and so on will warm to me? Which will be open to outriders and eccentrics? Which will be impressed with my county badminton standard or my choir singing? I'm sorry I haven't a clue.

Johnnie with three generations in the college eight for bumps, with a reserved pew in the college chapel in a male alto dynasty, and a bit of a rep for standing on head pint drinking in the JCR knows exactly where to direct his efforts.

I went to state schools - selective state schools - myself, but decided not to apply to Oxbridge. All my tutors and most of my lecturers where I did go had Oxbridge cum laude and the department in my subject was equal to if not significantly better than.

Will be very interested to see the other courses where black applicants may cluster. Law? The PPs? Physics? And I'd also be interested to hear views of others on the general vibe of the towns Oxford and Cambridge as places of diversity.

If I were a gifted black sixth former I'd be tempted by London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol etc as far more cosmopolitan locales than Oxford and Cambridge. Wouldn't you be?

And, to be blunt. UCL ranks better than either O or C on the world stage and the above named Russell groupers are all close enough and closing in.

One last thing. I am a bit surprised at the fairly high success rates overall. Irrespective of skin pigment. Even 12% seems high. Plenty of courses at red bricks show lower rates. The 1 in 3 figures quoted in the Guardian just seemed odd to me.

Lee said...

It's 'inter alios' (among other people), not 'inter alia' (among other things).

M said...

Last year in Nature University of Chicago geneticist Bruce Lahn & Lanny Ebenstein published an article suggesting that people need to learn to accept human genetic diversity. Basically, there is no reason to expect identical proportions of groups to excel at the same things.

Linda Gottfredson has written about this in the context of psychometrics. This predicts the overrepresentation of East Asian students and underrepresentation of some other groups at elite colleges.

Gottfredson, L. S. (2006). Social consequences of group differences in cognitive ability (Consequencias sociais das diferencas de grupo em habilidade cognitiva). In C. E. Flores-Mendoza & R. Colom (Eds.), Introducau a psicologia das diferencas individuais (pp. 433-456). Porto Allegre, Brazil: ArtMed Publishers.

http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/2004socialconsequences.pdf

tiredlegs said...

'it's meant to discriminate against people who aren't up to studying there'

Bollocks. Show me the metrics which prove that people who are not selected would have done worse than people who are selected.

tialaramex said...

“Show me the metrics which prove that people who are not selected would have done worse than people who are selected.”

You're right, obviously our inability to compare alternative realities forbids us from coming to any conclusions whatsoever. We are paralysed by your brilliant argument and must accept whatever nonsense you decide upon.

/headdesk

dave shorts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dave shorts said...

Certainly in Cambridge a lot of colleges are already applying significant positive discrimination to applications. They apply a correction factor to the results of the interviews depending on the average results from a school.

A huge problem with this is that the course is actually really quite difficult, and if you let in people who are not prepared for the course many of them will spend three years of their life feeling thick and being absolutely miserable (as several of my friends of various ethnic backgrounds did), and I am not sure that is a privilege.

While we are defining ourselves I went to Cambridge from a rural comprehensive school and struggled a lot due to the lack of preparation (mostly in maths) though enjoyed the experience, and am now still in Cambridge though not academically.

dave shorts said...

I know that many, probably most if not all Cambridge colleges apply significant positive discrimination to applicants who come from schools with a weaker academic record already. There is often a system where applicants will get bonus points in the interview for coming from a school which doesn't send many students to Oxbridge. This is effective to the point that a lot of posh schools complain about it.

The problem is that there is a limit to the amount of this which is actually helpful. The courses are actually really quite challenging, and is spending three years of your life feeling intellectually inadequate (as many of my friends of various ethnic backgrounds did) really that much of a privilege? So there is a limit to how unprepared it is useful to take a student.

Again we get back to the real problem being a long time before Oxbridge gets involved.

[I went to a rural comprehensive school (actually comprehensive as there were no other schools) which sent 1-2 people to oxbridge a year and I felt really quite unprepared to do Physics particularly mathematically.]

leif said...

In reference to acceptance rate, race, and field of study, the phenomenon you are describing is called Simpson's Paradox. In brief, if there are more than 2 variables, but you only consider 2 variables, then the nature of the relationship between those variables may seem to be the reverse of what it actually is. Wikipedia has a reasonable explanation. You have also given the correct solution, which is to consider all of the variables simultaneously.

LSG said...

It is absolutely true that a large part of the issue lies with the failings of State schools rather than a bias towards Public schools. I went to one of the top Catholic Comprehensives in London, arguably in the country, and was amazing by how blissfully outdated their views of the system are. When I first gave in my Personal Statement to my head of year, he said it was good despite having no specific English Language and Literature (my studied subject) knowledge. It was only through taking it to an English teacher that she was able to comment upon the issues with it. The same head of year also encouraged me to apply to do English and Classics, rather than just English as it is 'easier to get in.' I studied Classical Civilisation at A-level...my tutor wasn't even aware that there was a difference between the two. Thankfully I ignored him and applied to just do English. I was offered a place to study English at Worcester College, Oxford. When it came to results day I got full marks in English but missed an A in Classical Civilisation by two marks. Another teacher's advice was that there was 'no point calling up my college' as they would not accept me. Thankfully I once again ignored him, called up my college who were happy to confirm my place without even asking for a remark. The other kind of nonsense spouted our way was that if you don't have 7 A* at GCSE there is no point in applying. I am not in my final year at Worcester College having experienced the best three years of my life. There is absolutely no bias towards Public schools in my college at least, Public schools as a general rule are just far more up on the applications process and prepare their students in a far better manner. For instance it is not widely known that if an applicant displays a real passion, awareness and desire to develop their knowledge in their subject in one of the application criteria (e.g. for English in their personal statement, ELAT result, piece of written work) then they can still be invited to interview, even if other areas (such as prior results) suggest they are not up to the proper standard. I find it frustrating at how much, a really strong school such as my own, is letting students down by simply being too arrogant to properly look into the process. I got incredibly lucky because I followed my gut and actively opposed my tutors. And during my time at Worcester I have been surrounded by an even mix of state school and public school students. The one bias I have noticed- every single student has a real passion for their subject that makes them want to learn. If people don't exhibit that then they wouldn't enjoy or make the most of their time at Oxford. I write 12-16 essays per 8 week term, and generally every single essay I have written, no matter how stressful, I have enjoyed. I have a passion for my work but the misconception that Oxford is all work and no play, is utterly wrong. I have played football for my college 1st team for the last 3 years, breaking into the University 3rd team in my final year. I have also acted in 15 shows. On top of that I have time to go out and get horribly drunk 2-3 times a week. I repeat, the only bias is that you have to love your subject.

LSG said...

It is absolutely true that a large part of the issue lies with the failings of State schools rather than a bias towards Public schools. I went to one of the top Catholic Comprehensives in London, arguably in the country, and was amazing by how blissfully outdated their views of the system are. When I first gave in my Personal Statement to my head of year, he said it was good despite having no specific English Language and Literature (my studied subject) knowledge. It was only through taking it to an English teacher that she was able to comment upon the issues with it. The same head of year also encouraged me to apply to do English and Classics, rather than just English as it is 'easier to get in.' I studied Classical Civilisation at A-level...my tutor wasn't even aware that there was a difference between the two. Thankfully I ignored him and applied to just do English. I was offered a place to study English at Worcester College, Oxford. When it came to results day I got full marks in English but missed an A in Classical Civilisation by two marks. Another teacher's advice was that there was 'no point calling up my college' as they would not accept me. Thankfully I once again ignored him, called up my college who were happy to confirm my place without even asking for a remark. The other kind of nonsense spouted our way was that if you don't have 7 A* at GCSE there is no point in applying. I am not in my final year at Worcester College having experienced the best three years of my life. There is absolutely no bias towards Public schools in my college at least, Public schools as a general rule are just far more up on the applications process and prepare their students in a far better manner. For instance it is not widely known that if an applicant displays a real passion, awareness and desire to develop their knowledge in their subject in one of the application criteria (e.g. for English in their personal statement, ELAT result, piece of written work) then they can still be invited to interview, even if other areas (such as prior results) suggest they are not up to the proper standard. I find it frustrating at how much, a really strong school such as my own, is letting students down by simply being too arrogant to properly look into the process. I got incredibly lucky because I followed my gut and actively opposed my tutors. And during my time at Worcester I have been surrounded by an even mix of state school and public school students. The one bias I have noticed- every single student has a real passion for their subject that makes them want to learn. If people don't exhibit that then they wouldn't enjoy or make the most of their time at Oxford. I write 12-16 essays per 8 week term, and generally every single essay I have written, no matter how stressful, I have enjoyed. I have a passion for my work but the misconception that Oxford is all work and no play, is utterly wrong. I have played football for my college 1st team for the last 3 years, breaking into the University 3rd team in my final year. I have also acted in 15 shows. On top of that I have time to go out and get horribly drunk 2-3 times a week. I repeat, the only bias is that you have to love your subject.

satvat mathan said...

i agree the post of contents really so many colleges not following university rules and regulations.....